Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Derrida Tarries with AutoCorrect

In reading the essays and interviews that comprise Jacques Derrida's Paper Machine (2005), I came across a delightful anecdote about the confrontation between philosophical writing and new technologies of writing and inscription. This from "The Word Processor":
In Circumfession I also gave myself the somewhat random constraint of a software program that, when I got to the end of a paragraph of such and such a length, roughly twenty-five lines, told me: "The paragraph is going to be too long; you should press the Return button." Like an order coming from I know not whom, from the depths of what time or what abyss, this slightly threatening warning would appear on the screen, and I decided to come quietly to the end of this long sequence, after the breathing space of a rhythmic sentence, which did have punctuation, as if rippling with commas, but was uninterrupted, punctuated without a period, if you like -- so submitting the fifty-nine long sentences to an arbitrary rule made by a program I hadn't chosen: to a slightly idiotic destiny... As you know, the computer maintains the hallucination of an interlocutor (anonymous or otherwise), of another "subject" (spontaneous and autonomous, automatic) who can occupy more than one place and play plenty of roles: face to face for one, but also withdrawn; in front of us, for another, but also invisible and faceless behind its screen. Like a hidden god who's half asleep, clever at hiding himself even when right opposite you. (22)
Derrida elaborates on his anecdote by considering how the computer -- this medium of "word processing" -- becomes an Other to our consciousness. In contrast to writing with a stylus or on a typewriter, writing on a computer entails addressing an Other who knows what you are going to say in advance: "you have the feeling that you are dealing with the soul -- will, desire, plan -- of a Demiurge-Other, as if already, good or evil genius, an invisible addressee, an omnipresent witness were listening to us in advance, capturing and sending us back the image of our speech
without delay, face to face -- with the image rendered objective and immediately stabilized and translated into the speech of the Other, a speech already appropriated by the other or coming from the other, a speech of the unconscious as well. Truth itself" (23).

Word processing's immediacy, its seamless ability to add or erase data with a stroke of the keypad, its virtuality -- all these give Derrida the impression that there's a "demon" (23) at work in the computer apparatus, some unknown entity which exerts its magic on us, making us think the words we type on the screen are really, truly our "own." In fact, the demon's trickery makes our writing seem less familiar, more fixed in time (immediate) and space (there, on the screen, "in" the machine). Writing on the computer alters the texture of textuality itself:
The text is as if presented to us as a show, with no waiting. You see it coming up on the screen in a form that is more objective and anonymous than on a handwritten page, a page which we ourselves moved down. So from bottom to top is how things go: this show happens almost above us, we see it seeing us, surveying us like the eye of the Other, or rather, simultaneously, it also happens under the eye of the nameless stranger, immediately calling forth vigilance and his specter. It sends us back the objectivity of the text much faster, and so changes our experience of time and of the body, the arms and the hands, our embracing of the written thing at a distance... That doesn't mean that it perverts or degrades the sign, but it renders other our old sorting out, our familiar altercation, our family scene, if I may call it that, when the written thing first appeared. (24-25)
The Demiurge-Other: a demon that, at least to my mind, would mimic what we say as we write on the computer. Yet, in a strange way, his act of mimicry would precede the act of writing; that is, the text which appears on screen would seem as though it should've always been there, with or without our conscious writerly attention. So it's mimicry with a difference: fidelity to language that has already been worked over by the word-processing apparatus.

Between 1997 and 2007, successive versions of Microsoft Office gave a face and a name to the "internal demon" of word processing. Derrida's comments appeared before the arrival of Clippit, or Clippy, but, just as with his sentence's truncation by AutoCorrect, it wouldn't be unfair to speculate that he would've engaged the much-maligned Help icon by simply shrugging off its "slightly idiotic destiny." Clippit, after all, was only the goofy, literal expression of the processes of technological inscription that had already taken root in our writerly beings.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

No comments: